Geography (from the Latin geographia, in turn from the ancient Greek: γῆ, “earth” and γραφία, “description, writing”) is the science that has as its object the study, description and representation of the Earth in the configuration of its surface and in the extension and distribution of physical, biological, human phenomena that affect it and that, interacting with each other, continuously change its appearance.

Photo credits: Gaël Gaborel.

Geography is much broader than cartography, that is the study of maps, or topography, adding to them the investigation of the dynamics and causes of the position of the Earth in space, the phenomena that occur on it and its characteristics.

Human knowledge of the Earth has moved on from the phase of reconnaissance and exploration, which gave geography the primary task of reasoned description of the realities observed and surveyed from time to time. The whole Earth, or rather the whole life of the Earth, must be studied and interpreted: this immediately proposes the dilemma of whether to consider the relations between nature and man as conflicting relationships or as forms of cooperation.

In the first case, the unity of geography is broken and the associations of natural phenomena and those of human phenomena are the object of study respectively of physical geography, which uses methods of study drawn directly from naturalistic investigation, and human geography, whose methods of investigation follow those of the historical sciences.

In the second case, nature and man are coexisting and interacting realities in the construction of the territorial physiognomy and geography is not only clearly distinguished from other sciences for its object of study, the earth’s surface as a meeting place of the facts that promote its organization, but also for the method of study that is peculiar to it and that is exquisitely synthetic method.

The itinerary through which it seems possible to arrive at these considerations intended to configure a satisfactory arrangement of geography as a science, can take its starting point from the same object of observation and experience on which this science has always exercised its attention: the Earth. This observation captures the existence of a multitude of objects and phenomena to the interpretation of which applies the perceptive and rational faculty of man. They are not separate and autonomous: one recognizes not only a simple coexistence, but also a fabric of relationships and mutual interactions that condition their coexistence in space and promote their association in homogeneous and constant groups as composition, tending to the achievement of a system of relationships in balance, more or less prolonged, between them.

The attention of the geographer, therefore, is essentially attracted by the combinations of objects and phenomena observed on the earth’s surface. Whether it is a desert or an industrial area, a city or a communications network, what interests the geographer is the combination of the various elements that make up and determine each whole, ensuring a particular balance, not necessarily static, but more often dynamic and therefore constantly evolving, according to characteristic laws that are intrinsic and differentiate it from other geographical individuals.

The study of the combined processes that preside over the evolution of a territory is one of the objects of geography: among the natural processes are those related to the endogenous forces of the Earth and those arising from the situation, the configuration, the different nature of the various parts of the Earth’s surface. The combined action of these forces presides over the shaping of the territory, generating morphological characteristics that geography, precisely, studies. In doing so, it recognizes the genetic links between the various phenomena and the current characteristics of the territory: the external forms, soils, vegetation cover, fauna.

Among the human factors in the evolution of a geographical area are the tradition and culture of individual human groups, their technological level, their social and institutional structures, their economic system and their political order. All this is both cause and effect of a continuous evolution of the way of life of men, no less than of the territory in which they are settled. Witness to these influences is the evolution of the landscape, which is precisely its concrete manifestation in a more or less extended territorial space, in a transitory form of coexistence and balance between different phenomena. When natural phenomena prevail among them, that is, the evolutionary processes that are governed by the laws of nature (a high mountain territory, a desert, a rainforest, etc.), a natural landscape is identified, while when phenomena and processes of transformation are essentially human, it is logical to speak of a humanized landscape.

Principles of geographic research

Any phenomenon that manifests itself on the earth’s surface is significant for geography, always to the extent that, by itself or in its association and combination with other phenomena, it promotes peculiar characteristics of human settlement and life, both of individuals and of communities; for this reason, geographic knowledge is not analytical, but eminently synthetic.

The variety of elements to be taken into consideration and, even more, the complexity of the combinations with which they are associated require that the specific principles with which such research must be conducted be clarified. They seem classically reducible, on the basis of the thought of Humboldt, Ritter, Ratzel and Vidal de La Blache, to three criteria, or conceptual instruments. The first of these criteria can be considered the principle of extension, according to which geographical research has the task of determining the extent of combinations of groups of phenomena on the earth’s surface. Since they are eminently variable, by virtue of the different nature and position of the territories, as well as the human history they have experienced, it is a matter of noting what these same associations of phenomena and their combinations have that is peculiar to each individual area.

Recognition of how much of the territory they affect, alone or in combination with others, is therefore inseparable from their description. In direct connection with the principle of extension is the principle of coordination, according to which the geographical study of a set of phenomena present on a given area of the earth’s surface must not only recognize the boundaries of that area, but also other areas of the globe where similar manifestations are found. And here then is the third criterion of geographical research: the principle of causality, by virtue of which the investigation goes beyond the stage, albeit indispensable, of description to arrive at the more advanced and equally essential stage of the search for causes and consideration of the consequences of each set of phenomena examined. Obviously, this tracing back to the causes and this proceeding towards the consequences has limits at the margins of which lies the band of indeterminacy between geography and the other sciences.

The boundary cannot be traced a priori, also because in some cases geographical investigation does not find a discipline to contest or leave space for study, in the sense that it illuminates sectors where specialized research has not yet reached sufficient development. The surrogate action that then the geographer can legitimately exercise nothing takes away from the fact that it has characters not properly geographical, but, if anything, meta-geographical.

The focal point of geographical investigation remains, in fact, not the single natural or human phenomenon, as already mentioned, but the typical peculiar combination of all phenomena, which give a territorial strip more or less extensive of the earth’s surface a virtually unique appearance. This leads to a first concept of geographical region, which can be defined as the territory characterized by the harmonious coexistence and relationship of landscapes, various and different, but never conflicting and therefore interdependent: Alpine region, Po Valley region, volcanic region of Lazio, to refer to examples more directly transposable from our direct experience.

Geography branches

In geographic research, we can therefore distinguish phenomena and processes of natural and human origin, considering them the object of study of two types of geographic speculation, different from each other especially on the methodological level. This is the starting point for the traditional, even if discussed by some, separation between physical geography and human geography. While recognizing the didactic usefulness of this separation, it seems preferable the opinion of those who, in a strictly scientific perspective, reject a clear discrimination of the two orders of phenomena, at least in relation to the territories that have long represented the place of human life.

Indeed, man, in his work of settlement and organization of the earth’s surface, is constantly in a dialectical position with the natural environment and his constant effort is precisely the incessant effort to know, interpret, adapt, use for its needs or for its purposes the phenomena of the natural environment in which it is rooted. The resulting territorial organization is neither superimposition nor juxtaposition of natural and human elements, but combination, interweaving and mutual influence of the same.

It was especially the emergence and emergence of special sciences of the Earth and man (geology, geomorphology, hydrology, meteorology, anthropology, sociology, statistics, etc..) that, undermining the field of an all-encompassing and unitary geography, posed the problem of identifying an object that was exclusively geographical, not disputed by other disciplines. This object was indicated by the German F. Richthofen (1883) in the “surface of the earth and the phenomena that are with it in mutual relations of causality. In this way, the fields of astronomy, geophysics, geology and meteorology were excluded from geography.

Richthofen’s concept was spread by A. Hettner and accepted by the majority of geographers of the time, although it soon became clear that, although limited to the surface of the earth, the field of geography was still enormously extended. The disputes on the content, purposes and methods of geography were rekindled, also fueled by the emergence of anthropic geography as an independent branch, especially by F. Ratzel.

With the emergence of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, a keen interest arose in the relationship between man and the environment. If the environment affects the evolution of living species and the same human history, the study of the environment can give reason for historical processes and geography finds its ideal object in the study of human-environment relations. Thus a current of thought was formed that was called “geographical determinism” or “environmentalism”, although soon a lively reaction against it was manifested by historians, sociologists, philosophers and geographers. Among the latter, an eminent position was held by the Frenchman Vidal de La Blache, to whom we owe a profound revision of environmentalist theories.

To Ratzel’s determinism, de La Blache opposed a theory that was called “possibilism”: the environment offers numerous possibilities to man and he freely chooses those that best suit him. This also gives reason for those facts that cannot be explained by a direct influence of the physical or natural environment (especially historical and cultural facts). This, however, did not exclude the right of geography to act as a bridge-science between the disciplines of nature and those of man: it was only the rigorous necessity of such a position that fell by the wayside, and thus the unity of the object and the very validity of geography as an autonomous discipline were once again called into question. Nor could this unity come from a method: because principles such as those of localization, distribution, connection, evolution, etc., widely accepted in geography between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, are also found in other disciplines.

However, the currents of environmentalism and possibilism spread widely in many countries, partly because geography was now established everywhere as a university discipline, while specialized branches, such as historical geography, the history of geography, geopolitics, and the study of regional geography, especially lively in France and Italy, were gaining ground. It is from regional geography that the interest in geographical landscape was born. Indeed, the terms landscape and region are often confused, especially by German geographers, in accordance with the semantic bivalence of the term Landschaft.

From the beginning of the 20th century, studies on landscapes multiplied, both among the French (Bruhnes, Vidal de La Blache and students) and the Germans (Hettner, Passarge, Lautensach, Troll), the Austrians (Bobeck), the English (Mackinder, Stamp) and the Italians (Biasutti and Sestini). At the International Geographical Congress in Amsterdam (1938), the landscape was defined as “physiognomic and aesthetic reality, including all the genetic, dynamic and functional relationships with which the components of each part of the earth’s surface are joined together”. A geography as a science of landscape was also hypothesized (Passarge’s Landschaftskunde). But as the earth’s surface had seemed to constitute a field of investigation too broad, so it seemed to most that the landscape could not exhaust the entire field of geography and this continued to develop its investigations in the now traditional fields, which saw a general geography (divided into physical geography and human geography) and a regional geography.

Physical geography is traditionally divided into specific branches, such as:

  • biogeography, which studies the distribution of living species;
  • climatology, which examines climate and atmospheric phenomena;
  • geodesy, which deals with measuring and representing the Earth;
  • environmental geography, which analyzes the relationships between the natural environment and human societies;
  • astronomical geography, which studies the movement of the Earth in relation to other bodies in the Solar System;
  • littoral geography, which has as its object of study the coasts;
  • geomorphology, which examines the shape of the Earth and how this shape originated;
  • glaciology, which examines glaciers;
  • hydrology and hydrography, which have as their object of study the waters and the representation of their distribution over the territory;
  • oceanography, which studies the seas;
  • orography, which examines mountain relief;
  • paleogeography, which aims to try to reconstruct the geography of past eras;
  • pedology, which studies soils.

Human geography deals with population, human locations, rural geography, urban geography, political geography and economic geography (the latter has become a separate branch in many countries):

  • Cultural geography
  • Development geography
  • Economic geography
  • Health geography
  • Historical & Time geography
  • Political geography & Geopolitics
  • Demography
  • Religion geography
  • Social geography
  • Transportation geography
  • Tourism geography
  • Urban geography

However, since the Second World War, new geographical currents have gained strength, such as cultural geography (born in the thirties of the twentieth century in the U.S. with C. O. Sauer), social geography (of which the Frenchman P. George is an exponent), applied geography (of which the Frenchman P. George is an exponent), and applied geography (of which the Frenchman P. George is an exponent). George), applied geography (French, Soviet, American schools) and theoretical and quantitative geography, which refers to mathematical and geometric models (such as that of “central locations” by W. Christaller), information theory and cybernetics.

In particular, the adoption of classificatory techniques (taxonomy) has marked, around the fifties, the transition from the traditional descriptive approach (idiographic) to the interpretive (nomothetic), in order to compare the elements of geographic space, regardless of the absolute position or uniformity of the contextual landscape, and then order them in hierarchies, measuring their respective fields of force.

The affirmation of the concepts of structure and gravitation (areas of urban influence, for the provision of services, or industrial polarization, with the relative creation of external economies and induced activities) represents the basis of “geographic functionalism”, which has become more and more established in regional and operational research, following the influence of the thought of some leaders: in addition to Christaller and Lösch, Isard, Berry, Chorley and Haggett are mentioned.

For twenty years, quantitative geography seemed to favor disciplinary reunification, overcoming the dualism between physical and human components, equally “treated” in the spatial analysis of data, both coming to constitute factors of cohesion or disintegration of the regional structure. The static nature of functionalist models, generally synchronic, has prompted (since the 1970s) a further evolution, from structuralism to systemic theory: this, by introducing the concept of oriented process, enhances the temporal dimension and the ability of decision-makers to give the system – in the use of land and resources – a balanced trajectory (logistic curve), possibly correcting spontaneous tendencies to accelerated growth (exponential curve).

In this way, geography found a competitive role with respect to other and more modern areas of scientific thought, even if the sometimes uncritical adoption of abstract models and a sort of reiterated dependence no longer on the physical environment but on numerical logic, defined by some as “neo-determinism”, ignited a new debate, in which the critical attitudes of the Marxist and radical currents exploded. It was, in fact, the re-emergence of historical positions, sometimes extreme, which tended to recover the qualitative values in the construction of geographical theory and its applications: among the most significant authors, we can remember the Italian L. Gambi, the American R. J. Peet and the French A. Reynaud.

Subsequently, the lack of absolute confidence in quantitative elaborations and the failure of geo-economic systems inspired by communism have led to new forms of disciplinary convergence, based on a greater consideration of social problems, on a reading of the landscape in a historical-cultural as well as functional key and on some reference schemes – such as the relationship between center and periphery or environmental protection – able to unify the different methodologies of approach.

Historical notes

Geography as a science was born around the sixth century BC, on the shores of the Ionian Sea, at the center of the ecumene of the classical age. The same Greek name says what were the tasks and limitations of geography at that time. Hecataeus and Anaximander of Miletus illustrated the travels of navigators around the then known world with descriptive works and maps, of which the memory has been handed down to us. But soon, next to the descriptions of logographers, the first speculations on the nature of phenomena and the known lands (such as the famous Inquiries of Herodotus and the work Of air, water, regions of Hippocrates) and astronomical and mathematical observations of the Pythagorean school (ca. 500 BC), which laid the foundation of geography as a science, discovering the sphericity of the Earth and postulating inductively the division of its surface in climatic-astronomical zones.

In the following centuries, the geographical horizon widened considerably, thanks to military campaigns, such as those of Alexander the Macedonian, which went beyond the Caspian, to Persia, India and northeastern Africa. The Pythagorean theories were confirmed by the observations of Aristotle, concerning both astronomy (Del cielo), and the physical aspects of land, water and atmosphere (Meteorology).

To Eratosthenes (275-195 BC) we owe the first geodetic investigations and the first astronomical measurement of the arc of the Earth’s meridian, between Alexandria and Syene (Aswan). Always starting from mathematical speculations, Hipparchus (190-125 BC) developed the theory of climates, while Posidonius (136-91 BC) extended his observation to the phenomena of the earth’s crust and the movements of the sea.

Roman geography inherited only in part the scientific and mathematical approach of the Greek schools, directing its attention rather to the knowledge of the conquered lands and their description (chorography).

Polybius (second century BC) and Strabo (at the time of Augustus) described the aspects of the relief and continental waters, natural resources and characteristics of the people, seen also from the historical point of view. While the Roman Empire extended over most of the known world, extending its borders to northern and eastern Europe and northwestern Africa, the task of geographers seemed to be limited to the description of places, itineraria, sort of guides for travelers, and tabulae pictae, which gave the cartographic illustration, neglecting the strictly scientific speculation that had given fame to Greek geography, especially the Alexandrian school. This is linked to the famous Geography of Ptolemy (ca. 150 A.D.), whose importance lies in having handed down to subsequent historical periods a real summa, in 8 volumes, the geographical knowledge of classical antiquity.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the unity of the classical world was shattered and its cultural heritage was largely dispersed or forgotten, while the same boundaries of the ecumene narrowed. Geography lost its individuality, was often confused with cosmography, astrology, physics (which in turn lacked any scientific validity and were mainly influenced by religious doctrines), while Roman maps continued to be used and reproduced for the use of merchants and travelers.

The legacy of classical geography, however, was collected by the Arabs, and through them penetrated the West around the twelfth century. With the work of Ptolemy, it was above all the thought of Aristotle that returned to dominate medieval culture, while the resumption of trade, the Crusades, the travels of missionaries and merchants (such as Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and the Polo) not only reacquired, but extended the geographical knowledge of the ancient world, especially towards the Far East, East Africa and the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa.

It was to the Atlantic routes that Portuguese and Spanish navigators turned their attention in order to reach the spice countries by sea. In 1498, Bartholomeu Diaz reached Calicut in India, rounding the southern tip of Africa, but already in 1492, Christopher Columbus had crossed the Atlantic and reached the supposed eastern coasts of the Indies. In less than three centuries (from the voyages of Columbus to those of Cook) the great geographical discoveries revealed almost the entire surface of our planet and geography was called upon, with cartography, to account for these discoveries, to synthesize them in great descriptive works, to evaluate on a planetary scale the phenomena and the most varied aspects of the continental surfaces, seas, rivers, atmosphere and climate.

The Geographia generalis of Varenio (1650) remained an isolated attempt to synthesize in a systematic framework the geographical knowledge of his time, but it was the studies of naturalists (astronomers, geodesists, geologists, meteorologists, hydrologists) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that laid the foundations for a physical geography understood as a “reasoned description of the great phenomena of the Earth and consideration of the general results deduced from local observations and details, combined and united methodically in different ways. seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that laid the foundations for a physical geography understood as “a reasoned description of the great phenomena of the Earth and consideration of the general results deduced from local observations and details, combined and methodically gathered in different classes” (so Desmarets in the Grande Encyclopédie).

Even the geography of man made use of specific contributions from historians, ethnologists, statisticians of the “century of enlightenment”, which, as M. Bloch observes, “not content with collecting facts and observations, glimpsed the essential problems: kinds of life, distribution of population, reciprocal actions of man and the environment”. The merit of having collected all this ferment of ideas and scientific acquisitions in an ordered picture of the world, in which the presence and the work of man were integrated, belongs to two German scholars, A. von Humboldt (1769-1859) and C. Ritter (1779-1859), unanimously regarded as the fathers of modern geography.

Naturalist and traveler, Humboldt visited at length Central and South America, Europe and Russian Asia and collected the results of his observations and studies in a monumental work, Kosmos, which engaged him for twenty years. Its greater merit consists in the method with which it employs the results of its studies, applying the principles of extension, causality and correlation to the most different natural phenomena and also human. Putting in relation of cause and effect the different facts manifested in a single area, he gave origin to the regional geography, while, shifting the attention from the local fact to other regions where similar facts were found, he established a general comparative geography: both needed by the conviction that no place on Earth was knowable apart from the knowledge of the entire globe.

Humboldt’s work and ideas were widely echoed in Europe and were propagated by him in Germany, France and Great Britain. Although he had a different cultural background (mainly historical-philosophical), Ritter took up Humboldt’s principles and spread them in 40 years of university teaching, giving them a greater scientific rigor and integrating them with a livelier interest in the problems of human society and history. The legacy of the two founders of modern geography was not immediately collected, perhaps because the rapid growth of geographical knowledge no longer allowed for large-scale synthesis on a global scale, while the naturalistic and historicist strands were fatally diverging in the work of their successors.

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